Assessment and feedback are vital components of any successful learning programme. But they can also be sources of dissatisfaction, as shown by the National Student Survey which consistently returns lower satisfaction scores for these areas than any other aspect of the learning experience.
Through our assessment and feedback programme, we have been in discussion with people who are dealing with assessment and feedback issues on a daily basis. Not only has it helped everyone to get a clearer understanding of what might be going wrong, the institutions involved have started to develop processes and practices, enhanced by technology, which could be applied across the sector to benefit learners and teachers.
Starting at the top
When looking into the way institutions manage assessment and feedback, we found that rarely were there strategic drivers in place to steer these processes. Policies and procedures were commonplace, but top-level strategies were less evident.
Instead responsibility for assessment and feedback is by and large devolved to individual curriculum areas, making it hard for institutions to provide a consistent assessment experience, and harder still to implement on any scale the enhancements technology can bring.
A shared understanding of what ‘good’ practice looks like is the best starting point for change.
Educational principles, such as those developed by the Re-engineering Assessment Practice (REAP) project, among others, provide a useful focus for these discussions – and help ensure a sound basis for technology-enabled innovations.
Most importantly, a shared set of principles can provide the strategic steer that has previously been missing in institutional approaches to assessment and feedback. The University of Hertfordshire, for example, identified a set of seven ‘assessment-for-learning’ themes to support its ongoing work on assessment and feedback.
Make feedback a two-way process
The structure of the curriculum does little to support or enable self-improvement. In a modular system, assessments tend to occur at the end of modules, with little scope for putting feedback into practice. As tutors’ comments may no longer be relevant to current assignments, the issues raised can get overlooked – something that causes tutors as much concern as learners.
Feedback need not be a one-way, one-off process, as demonstrated by a postgraduate medical education team at the University of Dundee, who used simple technologies to develop a collaborative, interactive system which encourages self-regulation throughout.
Simply waiting for tutors’ grades and comment at the end is now a thing of the past for these learners. Instead, using an assignment cover sheet, they first evaluate how they have met the assessment criteria, applying previous feedback to their work before actively seeking the advice they need from their tutors.
Returned assignments are then uploaded to a wiki enabling the learners to keep track of how they have performed and better respond to the feedback they’re given.
Watch the timeline
Assignment bunching which occurs when modules follow similar summative assessment patterns means learners can end up taking several high-stakes assessments simultaneously if modules come to a close at the same time. And, with limited opportunities for sharing and reflecting on feedback, it is no surprise that understanding how to improve gets put on the back burner.
Don't just think about assessment occurring at the end of the learning process. Consider providing more formative assessments to better support learners. For example, the University of Hertfordshire designed assessment timelines to help curriculum staff shift the balance from summative to formative assessment, in the process reducing the risk of assignment bunching.
These resources can also make staff more aware of the programme-wide assessment experience of learners – something they don’t always get to see.
Ask a learner
The valuable contribution learners could make to improving assessment and feedback is underused. Even though learners can offer powerful insights into what works and what doesn’t, few institutions involve them in assessment and feedback design.
Small wonder then that learners’ verdict on assessment and feedback is that improvement is needed, and fast!
Collaboration with learners can pay dividends when it comes to deciding which technologies to use, when and how often. The University of Winchester and Bath Spa University have implemented a pioneering student fellow scheme in which learners work alongside academic staff as researchers and evaluators of innovations such as e-submission and e-feedback.
The students also provided useful insight into what technologies to use, when, and how often.